Valiant Knight of Government-Approved Information Rides to the Rescue
Look who is warning us again about the great harm conspiracy theories are doing to the minds of impressionable citizens everywhere: Cass Sunstein has emerged at Bloomberg, to once again plead for 'correction' of the many conspiracy theories that are disseminated on that pesky new medium, the intertubes, seemingly without inhibition. Contrary to the infamous paper in which he described how to precisely combat the spreading of false information that lacks the government's seal of approval, he doesn't list his favored censorship and disinformation techniques outright this time, but it is certainly implied that 'something must be done'.
With regard to conspiracy theories, there is a long history of dangerous thought entering the minds of deluded citizens. There were people who long doubted the official version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, or those who believed that the government's minions were capable of thinking up other 'false flag' activities such as 'Operation Northwoods', or the poor confused souls who argued that Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction' were a trumped-up pretext for war based on thoroughly politicized intelligence, or the mean-spirited traitors who charged that the US military killed a Reuter journalist and his helpers in Iraq and then covered it up, or the completely delusional paranoiacs who asserted for many years that the NSA was literally recording everything. Next they're going to say that the official version of the WTC attack lacks credibility, in spite of its enshrinement as unassailable truth following the government's decision to investigate itself!
We incidentally even know of certain people who routinely assert that the scientific and utterly wertfrei monetary policy enacted by well-meaning central banks is harmful and favors certain groups in society over others! Surely such highly dangerous attempts to foment popular dissent need to be properly suppressed before they irreparably disturb the social harmony of the Collective.
Also, consider for a moment the honest and well-intentioned politicians and bureaucrats who advanced the schemes listed above in the national interest. It was only their self-less concern for our well-being that drove them to make a tiny mistake here or there. By accusing them of nefarious motives, the conspiracy theorists have undoubtedly deeply hurt their feelings. It is an outrage crying out for rectification.
What 'Needs to Be Done'
Cass Sunstein certainly knows what needs to be done to ensure that the geistige Volksgesundheit is maintained. The intertubes simply must be corralled to reduce the great harm all this conspiracy theorizing inflicts. In his 2008 paper ' ' written with Adrian Vermeule, he proposed the following eminently reasonable measures:
- Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.
- Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.
- Government might itself engage in counter-speech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.
- Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counter-speech.
- Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help."
Surely number (1) would be most effective and help to conserve resources. But where would be the fun in that? Intellectual combat with the deluded masses is surely more satisfying. We are therefore informed that:
However, the authors advocate that each "instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5)”
We should be grateful that these social engineers are thinking up such excellent ways of protecting the already overloaded neural circuits of the citizenry. Incidentally, it seems actually quite possible that the NSA has heard about these useful proposals, considering that its agents “Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations” according to Glenn Greenwald. See, we are already protected!
As a result, have every reason to feel all 'snuggly and secure', as Mark Fiore points out in the video below, which nicely summarizes why we have absolutely nothing to fear.
Snuggly and secure! You have nothing to fear, citizen! As long as you have nothing to hide, are not blowing any whistles you treasonous leaker, or exhibit undue interest in the Bill of Rights.
Techniques of the Demagogue
Sunstein's recent Bloomberg article is quite interesting though in that it nicely demonstrates the demagogic techniques employed in advancing statist interests. One can immediately see that he has learned a few lessons from the push-back he received the first time around. As noted above, he refrains this time from telling us in detail what government should actually do in order to 'reduce the harm from conspiracy theories'.
He merely asserts that such harm exists, encouraging readers to think about how it might be reduced. He mentions in closing that 'we' need to “persuade the conspiracy theorists to find their way around to the truth”, but he doesn't say how.
Whenever an author invokes 'us', asserting that 'we' must do this or that, what he really means is actually that the government's apparatus of coercion and compulsion must be set into motion to attain certain goals the author approves of. In recent weeks we have e.g. heard that 'we' must bail out the Ukraine financially, or that 'we' must punish Mr. Putin and his henchmen with sanctions, but this is of course not a call to voluntarily engage in these activities. It is simply an announcement, informing us that those steering the government apparatus will do all these things. 'We' only figure in the sense that 'we' are going to pay for it all (and certainly not voluntarily).
So when Sunstein says that 'we' must 'help' those poor deluded conspiracy theorists, he is actually saying the same things he was saying before, only in a less direct manner. It means the government must intervene.
The other technique on display is the 'straw man' technique. Discussing conspiracy theories in detail, Sunstein deliberately lists many that can either be very easily disproved, or of which it can be assumed that most readers will immediately classify them as nonsense.
At one point he tries to assure us that his approach is evenhanded by conceding that a number of conspiracy theories have later turned out to be the truth, but he immediately reverts to his previous condescending tone, belittling those who show an interest in investigating government misdeeds. He lists three examples: the Watergate scandal, the CIA's MK Ultra program, and the fact that 'aliens have really landed in Roswell' – in other words, he only lists two examples and immediately downplays their importance by adding a plainly ridiculous third one to the list.
Degrees of Harm
It could even be conceded arguendo that Sunstein succeeds in demonstrating that harm is sometimes inflicted, as e.g. in the context of conspiracy theories surrounding vaccines (we actually don't know what these theories assert, not having delved into the subject in detail; however, the history of modern medicine certainly suggests that a great many scourges that have plagued mankind have been successfully vanquished with the help of vaccines).
So it may be true that there are a small handful of cases when belief in a conspiracy theory might actually harm those believing it. But so what?
Sunstein's proposals as formulated in his original paper (and we have no reason to believe that he has changed his opinion on these points) are infinitely more harmful. Life is never without risks, but the wrongheaded belief held by social engineers that the government must eliminate every last one of them by intervening in every nook and cranny of our lives can ultimately only end in tyranny.
The ubiquitous and all-encompassing surveillance state that has been installed to allegedly 'protect us from terrorists' is actually an excellent example of how extremely misguided these attempts to shield us from every conceivable evil are. The reality is in this case that the threat is statistically minuscule; as we have previously noted, more Americans die from drowning in their bathtubs and even from merely falling off a chairs than from terrorist attacks. And yet, no-one has proposed to spend tens of billions every year to keep tabs on the citizenry's evil furniture, at least not yet. The danger that the gathering of every last scrap of data will be abused is orders of magnitude greater than the danger emanating from terrorists.
Central bank policy is yet another example: the attempt to spare us the pain of economic busts only leads to even bigger economic catastrophes down the road. This has only recently been demonstrated when the interventions following the bursting of the technology bubble resulted in its replacement by the housing bubble. In the end, a far more painful recession than the one the initial intervention sought to mitigate resulted. The same principle will be demonstrated again when the current echo bubble bursts at some point in the future.
The Conspiracy Theory of History
Finally, it should be clear that what one might term a 'conspiracy theory of history' often comes a lot closer to the truth than the officially approved line that is taught in public schools. The one thing that should be clear to every astute observer is that governments routinely lie. They sometimes even admit it, such as JC Juncker did in his function as president of the euro group of finance ministers (this incident serves as an example of how brazen the ruling class has become in modern times; they don't even care anymore how transparent they are).
The fact that governments are lying routinely and are keeping a great many of their activities secret in allegedly 'free societies' is what provides the fertilizer for conspiracy theories. Even in the rare cases when governments tell the truth, many people are no longer inclined to believe them. Distrust of government is however not akin to a mental disease – it is rather a sign that one is alert and keeping one's eyes open. It is also a necessary and healthy approach that provides a small, but important contribution to keeping government abuses in check.
“Anytime that a hard-nosed analysis is put forth of who our rulers are, of how their political and economic interests interlock, it is invariably denounced by Establishment liberals and conservatives (and even by many libertarians) as a "conspiracy theory of history," "paranoid," "economic determinist," and even "Marxist." These smear labels are applied across the board, even though such realistic analyses can be, and have been, made from any and all parts of the economic spectrum, from the John Birch Society to the Communist Party. The most common label is "conspiracy theorist," almost always leveled as a hostile epithet rather than adopted by the "conspiracy theorist" himself.
It is no wonder that usually these realistic analyses are spelled out by various "extremists" who are outside the Establishment consensus. For it is vital to the continued rule of the State apparatus that it have legitimacy and even sanctity in the eyes of the public, and it is vital to that sanctity that our politicians and bureaucrats be deemed to be disembodied spirits solely devoted to the "public good." Once let the cat out of the bag that these spirits are all too often grounded in the solid earth of advancing a set of economic interests through use of the State, and the basic mystique of government begins to collapse.”
And this, in a nutshell, is what is really behind Mr. Sunstein's concern with 'conspiracy theories'. It is all about preserving the State's perceived right to rule by letting nothing intrude on the notion that politicians and bureaucrats are 'disembodied spirits solely devoted to the public good' rather than people who pursue their own personal interests.
Former government advisor Cass Sunstein: still concerned about 'conspiracy theories'
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Author; Matthew W. Hutchins)
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